A trip across the border…


into the Ukraine!

by BTWT guest writer, Robert Hall


Ty2-340 taking water at Kroscienko, just short of the Polish-Ukrainian border in May 1991.
Photo © Pawel Mieroslawski

On June 3rd 1984, sitting in the 06:32 local from Zagorz to Premysl, I embarked on what was one of the most interesting railway trips in Poland a quarter of a century ago – travelling on one of the trains in passenger timetable 128, Przemysl to Zagorz, in the very far south-east of the country.

In fact you couldn’t get much further south-east with a Polish visa. The timetable’s services included forty-odd kilometres of running through a corner of the (then) Soviet Ukraine. PKP passenger trains worked through the foreign territory under a “corridor” arrangement, with no additional visa requirements needed for those travelling.

In those days, table 128 had relatively frequent local services at both its Polish ends but the only “corridor” passenger workings passing through the Ukraine were the Solina express, between Warsaw and Zagorz, running only on a restricted number of days throughout the year; and the daily local train each way between Przemysl and Zagorz, departing the former late in the afternoon, and the latter early in the morning. In the first half of the 1980s, the Solina was often steam-hauled south of Przemysl, but the express’s traction was something of a lottery. The local, however, was dependably steam-worked, usually by a Ty2 “Kriegslok” 2-10-0 (German type 52).

My journey started off with Ty2-403 hauling three bogie coaches. 45 km and 1 hour 26 minutes later, we reached Kroscienko, the last station in Poland. The schedule allowed a wait of 35 minutes there, part of which was used to attach ten assorted freight wagons to the rear of the train, for transit through the USSR.

It was a few kilometres from Kroscienko to the border where the train halted for about a quarter of an hour, to be searched for anything suspicious, and to be boarded by a small squad of Soviet frontier guards, including one with an Alsatian dog. Most of the guards posted themselves in the front compartment of the first coach, and the rear ditto of the third. One or two probably travelled on the loco’s footplate to prevent the crew picking up ‘hitchhikers’. A chap in ‘civvies’, wearing a good-quality long overcoat and no doubt the local KGB representative, embarked in the coach in which I was travelling.

The frontier paraphernalia here – and likewise re-crossing the border some 40 km further on – featured the full fearsome array of watch-towers, barbed-wire fencing, broad strip of raked sand, and all the rest – and this between two supposedly allied nations. Within the sad and ludicrous context, it seemed a relaxed-enough scene. The man in the coat chatted, apparently quite amicably, with the Polish passengers; and a lot of the frontier guards looked to me about twelve years old, and not the slightest bit menacing.

My general experience of ‘gricing east of the Curtain’ was that while producing a camera was – unless you were lucky – an invitation for immediate mayhem, other railway-enthusiast-type activities, such as map-consulting and note-taking, seldom upset anyone in authority. This didn’t seem to make a lot of sense – but then in those days, things making sense was not part of the deal.

I decided to keep my camera well hidden, but otherwise carry on business as usual, and if challenged, to do the ‘clueless tourist’ number. It worked well: map, timetable, notebook – nobody batted an eyelid. The man in the overcoat seemed to take no notice of me whatever. There was one stop of several minutes for signals at Starzhava, the first station within the Soviet Union – otherwise the run between border-points was non-stop.

All signalling observed in the USSR was colour-light, whereas everything at both Polish ends of the route was semaphore. From Starzhava onwards, the route was mixed-gauge – European 1435 mm and Russian 1524 mm – on a four-rail track. The line (once a double-track main line in the days when all this area belonged to the Austrian Empire and long since singled) ran through very pleasant mountain-foothills scenery. As on the Polish side of the border, many white storks were to be seen, always a joy of visits to Poland in the spring or early summer.


The route from Zagorz to Przemysl.
Map © Kolejow Mapa Polski

(Click on map to go to website.)

My excitement mounted as we approached Chyrov, the main town on the Ukrainian section of the run. For Western railfans, the Soviet Union was a frustrating mystery. Unlike with virtually all Communist nations further west in Europe, foreign visitors to the USSR were not allowed beyond the restricted tourist trails. This was maddening for railway enthusiasts, who wanted to learn about the steam situation nationwide, and to go and experience it. Nothing can be kept totally secret, however, and general picture perceived in the ‘70s and ‘80s, was that the Soviet Railways had got into modern traction early and enthusiastically, and by the mid-‘80s, though many shunting turns remained steam worked, steam locomotives had mostly been phased out on line working.

So foreign gricers observed and enjoyed what limited opportunities they legitimately could, and a select few ventured – with almost insane bravery – in search of steam beyond the areas their tourist permits allowed, into places where they had, in Soviet eyes, no business to go. Sooner or later, such ploys came unstuck, and the best that the culprit could hope for was immediate expulsion from the USSR, and being declared persona non grata there for ever after. Few people had the bottle to indulge in such capers; for the more timorous majority, any chance for a look at an obscure venue in the Soviet Union without putting one’s head on the block, was to be treasured.

PKP’s timetable 128 workings gave such an opportunity. Chyrov was a junction with a route running eastwards, and with a locomotive depot. In the 1980s, folk passing through on the corridor trains were able to observe the steam locomotives at depot – often actually noted in steam – though whether by this date they performed any line working, or only shunted, remained unknown.

The steam type most prominently featuring here, were Kriegslok 2-10-0s (German class 52); on occasion, 0-10-0s were also noted. On the morning of my journey, the scene proved a bit disappointing. There could be seen in Chyrov station, a Soviet diesel loco on a rake of wagons, and one Kriegslok fully in view, apparently in good condition but not in steam; and there was at least one more steam loco, unidentifiable, inside the tightly-closed shed building, adjacent to the station. Reports from other enthusiasts who made the journey at later dates than myself, mentioned Soviet locos observed in steam at Chyrov. Thus, I was just a little unlucky. Perhaps the day being a Sunday had some relevance?

The line east towards Sambor was mixed-gauge, at least as far as the eye could see; and mixed gauge continued on the corridor route as far as Nizhankovichi station, immediately before re-entry into Poland. Another quarter-hour’s pause here for the search, and for the border guards to disembark, and to wait to cross a freight double-headed by PKP diesels – maybe a transit working, maybe to link up with the Soviet broad-gauge system. Then it was back across the border into Poland, and the run to Przemysl (Glowny) station. Four hours and a couple of minutes, for a 102 km run. (Our train’s counterpart in the other direction, took four and a half.)

Part of this journey can still be made at the time of writing, though the steam element is long gone. Nowadays, PKP timetable 133 offers an international run twice each way daily, on most days, between Sanok (near Zagorz) and Chyrov. The timetable would indicate that traversal of this 71 km route takes approximately three and a half hours westbound, and five eastbound. (Ukrainian time is UTC/GMT +2 hours, so actual journey times are one hour longer or shorter than the times given in the timetable, depending on direction of travel.)

It seems that Ukrainian independence has not appreciably speeded up railway passenger services in this corner of Europe. EU citizens can now explore the whole of the Ukraine without a visa. And the Chyrov – Przemysl section has been without passenger services for a good many years now. For sure, if the time machine is ever invented, followers of the railway hobby will be among its best customers…

The border at Kroscienko

The border at Kroscienko runs top to bottom across the middle of the picture. Hover pointer near the box marked ‘Sat’ and click ‘Show labels’ to view. The railway line runs just to the North of the road. The track running parallel to the border, some 1 1/4 miles to the East marked the start of the Soviet-era security zone. The map can be zoomed and scrolled.


This piece originally appeared, in a slightly different version, under “Travellers’ Tales” here.

BTWT would like to thank Pawel Mieroslawski for providing the photograph at the head of the article.

4 Responses to “A trip across the border…”

  1. Emmet Says:

    Great article! I recently traveled between Kroscienko and Chyriw (as it’s now known in independent Ukraine), and the single-track 4’8.5″ line is in poor condition. However, the reason for the lengthy journey time is different altogether: frontier controls. Both Polish exit and Ukrainian entry controls are carried out at Kroscienko on a specially-built platform at the new road border crossing complex. All passengers are required to detrain with all of their luggage and go through two sets of customs and immigration—and because the vast majority of passengers are smugglers, this is a time-consuming process indeed! In fact, once we were “safely” in Ukraine, I was asked to vacate my seat so that my fellow travellers could retrieve the frozen chickens hidden in the ceiling panels….

    BTW, there are still trains running part of the way on the old Khyriv-Przemysl line, as far as Nizhankovychi (these are local trains running with broad-gauge 4’11.825” equipment)

  2. Robert Hall Says:

    Emmet, thanks for the thoughts. Well – the continuing tragi-comedy of everyday life in Eastern Europe – so the long time now taken by the international run, is due to attempts, largely futile it would seem, to combat smuggling. This is, one gathers, highly prominent at any border crossing nowadays in this part of the world. Have heard amusing-cum-alarming smuggling-on-a-grand-scale stories, about the Poland / Lithuania rail border crossing between Trakiszki and Sestokai.

    Interesting that passenger services now run on the Ukrainian side, north of Chyrov to Nizhankovichi. (The many spelling variants baffle me, I’m afraid – I just stick with what were standard transliterations in 1984.) Am aware that the table 128 corridor deal ceased to be, long ago; and have a map accompanying 2002 / 2003 PKP timetable, which features lines in neighbouring countries, and shows Polish table 133 route as running through Kroscienko – Chyrov; and line east from Chyrov to Sambor; but nothing north from Chyrov in the direction of Przemysl. Maybe the map’s compilers were not completely up to speed with events in Ukraine; maybe Chyrov – Nizhankovichi passenger services were resumed post-2003, after a spell of suspension…

  3. Nick "Birdsnest" Ralph Says:

    This brings back memories. I made the trip twice, both occasions out and back from Zagorz. The first was on Christmas Day 1980, from memory I saw 2-3 steam engines in steam at Chirov. The other memory is that the USSR soldiers had special bars which fitted into the external doorways of the coach and throughout the journey through USSR a soldier was leaning out at the end of each coach monitoring for any suspect activity (Cameras poking out of windows, objects being thrown on/off the train, etc.).

    A story I was told was that the Poles, not liking their Soviet neighbours, would save all their oily rags and put them on the fire to make as much smoke as possible and make the journey as unpleasant as possible for the soldiers, although it can’t have been very pleasant anyway in the sub-zero temperatures. Certainly on my trip I recall plenty of smoke.

    Later that evening I went up to Lupkow behind a Tkt48 and was arrested at for entering an area restricted to foreigners and was not released until early on Boxing Day, but that is a story in its own right.

  4. Robert Hall Says:

    I’d forgotten all about the guards’ ‘leaning-out-bars’ – thanks for the reminder. One is temped to fantasise about these guys being approached by gricers with view to their illegally purchasing the items concerned, to facilitate gricing activities. (I know a fellow who owned a pair of French loco-driver’s goggles, to make possible head-out-of-the-window without smuts and grit in the eyes.)

    The Poles’ not being keen on their neighbours east of the border is, I suppose, understandable, perhaps enough about such matters, here! I’d think it likely that the guards – being young guys – would in any case not have been very familiar with travelling on steam-hauled trains; with the Soviet Union having mostly phased out steam line working, especially on passenger turns, quite early on.

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